Yesterday's Crimes: That Time the U.S. Government Sold Forged Art

Salvador Dalí's melting clocks and elongated elephants have always been popular among San Francisco art buyers, but unfortunately, Dalí only cranked out self-portraits with bacon for 79 years or so. By the time he died in 1989, the demand for his work far exceeded supply.

Forged Dalí prints started showing up in small San Francisco galleries serving the tourist trade in the 1980's, but things got weird even by Dalí standards when the federal government got in on the act.

[jump] After the 1987 bust of Center Art Galleries in Honolulu — one of the largest Dalí forgery rings ever uncovered — the U.S. Postal Inspection Service received court permission to auction off the seized artwork to recoup the costs of a lengthy trial.

The New York art world was aghast, so the 12,000 fakes went on the auction block in Belmont, California, in October 1995. Since Sotheby's and Christie's wouldn't touch the stuff, the sale was handled by Koll-Dove Global Disposition Services, an outfit that usually liquidated repoed office and industrial equipment. Adding to the confusion, authenticated pieces by surrealists Joan Miró and Marc Chagall, and paintings by actors Tony Curtis and Anthony Quinn, were also pawned off during the auction.

Dalí authenticator Bernard Ewell, who served as an expert witness during the Center Art Galleries trial, couldn't believe what was happening.

“I think that sale is really unprecedented,” Ewell said during a recent phone interview. “I don't think there is anything else like it.”

Although Ewell didn’t attend the auction, he heard some crazy stories in its aftermath.

“Mostly, it was stories of one crooked dealer complaining about another crooked dealer because they had decided to go in and buy jointly, and one of them had basically absconded with everything they bought and got all the profit,” Ewell recalled.

The Postal Service did mark all of the pieces as fake, but oftentimes they only stamped the back of the brown paper that lined the beautifully framed fakes.

“All you'd have to do is remove it and the notice is gone,” Ewell explained.

According to the New York Times, the auction attracted 200 bidders and raised nearly $350,000, a small fraction of what the prosecution estimated was the gallery’s more than $100 million in fraudulent sales.

And fraudulent surrealism continues to be pushed through Bay Area outlets. In 2009, Pasquale Iannetti, an art dealer with a gallery in Union Square, was indicted by a federal grand jury for allegedly selling forged Joan Miró prints.

As the Iannetti case wends through the criminal justice system, don't be surprised if those illicit Mirós end up in a government auction on the Peninsula somewhere — as surreal as that may seem.

“Yesterday's Crimes” revisits strange, lurid, eerie, and often forgotten crimes from San Francisco's past. 

View Comments